Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Watched Scary Weekend Late-Night TV Programs

At the beginning of the Baby Boom, television broadcasting expanded to make boomers the first TV generation. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes owned a TV, so the next issue for broadcasters was to fill the programming day. From the early days of four-hour prime time broadcasting (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), the burgeoning networks had grown the broadcast day to twenty hours, signing off the air at 2 a.m.

The dilemma broadcasters faced was what to put on the air after 11 p.m. on weekends, when most people (and all good Baby Boom children!) were already in bed. While the networks experimented with late-night programming during the week (i.e., Broadway Open House in 1950, The Tonight Show in 1952), it wasn’t as lucrative to them in terms of advertiser sponsorship. For the most part, late-night broadcasting was left up to locally-owned stations. The cheapest way for them to fill the time was by airing old movies.

As the 1950s became the 1960s, many stations were airing syndicated segments of movies from the horror genre on weekends in the time between midnight and 2 a.m. Some had a voiceover actor to introduce the film, then disappear until there was a commercial break or the film ended — whichever came first since it was difficult to sell late-night ad space. Most had a local host or hostess who was often dressed as a ghoul, vampire or monster themselves to introduce the movie of the night. While the hosts may have been adept at slapstick and schlock with a distinct feeling of improvised scripting, the movies were from Hollywood — often B movies but also top-rated films like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Various regional favorite hosts emerged (such as Vampira on the West Coast).

Their success drew copy cats from other regions, to the point that several used the same titles for their programs even though each region generated their own content on either end of the movie being aired. Some of these program titles included Nightmare Theater, Creature Features, Chiller Theater and the most famous of them all, Shock Theater. Shock Theater became synonymous with the genre, so much so that the title is now considered a generic name for programs airing late-night movies from classic horror films of the 1930s and ’40s to the sci-fi and Japanese monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s.

Shock Theater began as a syndicated package of Universal/Screen Gems classics. The originally syndicated package ran from 1957 to ’59. There was a version of the movie package under the umbrella title of Shock! airing until the 1980s. Mister Boomer and his siblings were in bed long before the shows came on, though his father was a late-night TV watcher/sleeper. Mister B, a light sleeper, would wake up when the TV broadcast ended and white noise filtered into his bedroom down the hall. He’d turn off the TV and shut the light, then head back to bed.

Mister Boomer saw his classic horror films mostly at Saturday matinees at the movies, but later enjoyed them on TV during daytime or nighttime broadcasts. He was well-versed in everything from Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy to creepy Vincent Price movies like House of Wax. There is one time, however, that Mister B recalls seeing Shock Theater. He believes he was in the third grade when a classmate held a sleepover with Mister B and a couple of his friends. After the boy’s parents went to bed and the house was dark, the group made their way to the TV to watch Shock Theater. Mister Boomer was frightened that the boy’s parents would get up and be angry with them, but that did not happen. Mister Boomer would view a Shock Theater program.

Mister B remembers that the movie that night was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It didn’t matter that the film was in black & white (as was the capability of the TV set); the movie scared the bejeebus out of him. There was no other movie that gave him more nightmares than that one episode of Shock Theater, watched in the dark in a strange home in the middle of the night.

Did you watch Shock Theater or weekend late-night scary movies in the 1950s and ’60s, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,Pop Culture History,TV and have No Comments

Boomers Grew Along With Weather Forecasting

The rash of weather-related events in recent times — hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, ice and snow storms — have never been better forecast and reported on than they are today. Continuous weather alerts via smartphones and 24-hour weather channels make us more connected to the weather than at any time in history. Boomers are especially positioned to have seen the evolution of that reporting, from the early days of television to today.

Of course, weather reporting did not start with the boomer years. It goes way back before the country was founded, but our Founding Fathers appreciated the advantage that weather reports could give them as merchants, mariners, farmers and military leaders. In particular, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid weather observers, noting temperatures and observations in daily diaries. Jefferson had a thermometer and barometer — one of the only instruments of its kind in the U.S. at the time — at Monticello, and took daily notes of the data.

Once the telegraph allowed for reporting from all parts of the country around 1849, the Smithsonian Institution supplied weather instruments to telegraph offices, which would report back on a daily basis. By 1870, a national weather service was instituted to inform military stations of impending storms, which for the first time gave ordinary citizens information that would affect their lives. In the 1920s, the National Weather Bureau provided daily reports to the fledgling aviation industry.

During WWII, weather reporting was vitally important in many battles, especially the Normandy Invasion. Weather data on winds and tides allowed analysts to correctly interpret how the heavy fog, rain and wind of that day would lift, thereby first giving cover to the approaching invasion fleet, then as the weather improved, a better fighting circumstance for troops. In 1945 there were 900 women working for the Bureau, filling positions that were held by men who had been called to military duty.

The Boomer Generation years of 1946-1964 were extremely important to the advance of weather reporting, especially on TV:
• In 1948, the U.S. Weather Bureau gave the first tornado warnings in Oklahoma; national tornado forecasts began being issued in 1952.
• In 1950, the first 30-day outlook forecasts were released.
• In 1954, the first radar specifically designed for meteorological use was put into service by the U.S. Air Force.
• In 1957-58, the year was named The International Geophysical Year to mark the first time meteorological research data was shared among world scientists.
• In 1958, the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, was launched to observe weather. Data from the satellite is credited for the discovery of the Van Allen Belts, Earth’s magnetic fields.
• In 1963, the first polar-orbiting weather satellite, TIROS III, was launched. It provided, for the first time, continuous images of cloud cover across the globe.
• In 1970, the U.S. Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service

The British were the first to broadcast a televised weather report, with the male meteorologist standing in front of a map on a chalkboard, in 1949. The first U.S. TV weather report broadcast came out of Cincinnati in the late-1940s to early 1950s. In 1952, the FCC opened up competition for local TV station licenses, and stations saw that weather was the one place where they could get attention and distinguish themselves from competitors. By the early 1950s, weather was seen as a chance to insert comic relief into the seriousness of the daily newscasts.

Heading into the mid-boomer years, it was understood that weather forecasting was far from an exact science, so anyone with sufficient charisma and charm was tapped to report the weather. Consequently, weather reports were, depending on the positioning of the local TV station, a serious affair or a comedic interlude. A series of people, from puppeteers and poets to serious meteorologists and newsmen, were given the job at local stations. All sorts of “wacky weathermen” were reporting from local stations coast to coast. Boomers will recall the joking and physical humor of their local weather forecasters while giving the weather report; they became much-loved personalities in their own right.

Carol Reed is credited with being the first TV “weather girl,” reporting for WCBS-TV in New York City from 1952 to 1964. She had no meteorological training, and was not on the wacky side of the equation, but was well liked by TV audiences. In 1957, the American Meteorological Society began issuing the AMS Seal of Approval as a way to get science-based on-air presenters more respect and make weather reporting less of a burlesque show. By the late 1960s, most of the wacky forecasters were replaced by increasing technological abilities onscreen and added scientific data.

Mister Boomer recalls the weather forecasters in his youth. Of course, the Today Show with Dave Garroway was part of the family’s morning ritual. After national news was relayed, local stations could insert their forecasts into the program slot, so mothers knew how to dress their kids for school. What seemed ubiquitous to Mister B in the early days were the chalkboards. It was all men reporting the weather in Mister B’s area, and they would painstakingly draw warm, cold and stationary fronts on national and state maps affixed to the chalkboards, indicate temperatures in the region and forecast the highs and lows for the day as well as a general indication of sun, rain, wind, sleet, snow, heat or cold. One local station had a guy who could turn every forecast into a series of weather-related puns.

Weather forecasting has come a long way, both in format and scientific accuracy, since our boomer years. If recent tracking of impending hurricanes and “snowmaggedons” are any indication, understanding the weather in the near future will be as commonplace as our personal home assistants telling us to put on a sweater as an Alberta Clipper approaches the area.

Do you have fond memories of weather men — and women — from your early boomer years?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons,Technology and have Comments Off on Boomers Grew Along With Weather Forecasting

Boomers Say Good-bye to More Generational Influencers

Boomers will remember 2017 for many things, not the least of which is the collection of notable deaths of movers and shakers that helped to form the cultural, political and technological landscape that was the Boomer Years.

Jeremy Stone (January 1, age 81)
A scientist, his pro-arms control and human rights advocacy landed him on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in 1973. He authored two books in the 1960s: Containing the Arms Race: Some Specific Proposals (1966) and Strategic Persuasion: Arms Control Through Dialogue (1967). Stone served as president of the Federation of American Scientists from 1970 to 2000, contributing to policy debates on the nuclear arms race for more than 30 years.

Dick Gautier (January 13, age 85)
Boomers will best recall him as Hymie the Robot in the Get Smart TV series.

Mary Tyler Moore (January 25, age 80)
Boomers will always remember her on The Dick Van Dyke Show and of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was definitely a mover and shaker of the cultural zeitgeist. Mister B feels other sources can do far better justice to her importance than he can on this list.

Irwin Corey (February 6, age 102)
This comic was known to boomers as “Professor” Irwin Corey. Malapropisms, double-speak and mangled language defined his comedy on The Steve Allen Show and subsequent appearances on numerous variety shows throughout the 50s, ’60s and ’70s. Mister Boomer enjoyed his antics.

Chuck Berry (March 18, age 90)
Boomers first heard Berry when Maybellene was released by Chess Records in1955. He wrote and recorded Johnny B. Goode in 1958, a genuine rock classic. It was chosen to be on the Golden Record that contained sounds of human achievement and went out with the Voyager I spacecraft launched in 1977. Chuck Berry was the first inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Hundreds of musicians, including The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, said they were greatly influenced by his music. Stars of the boomer era don’t get much bigger than Chuck Berry.

Sylvia Moy (April 15, age 78)
Boomers probably don’t know her name, but they know her music. She was a producer for Motown and wrote many hit songs, including Uptight (Everything’s Alright), I Was Made to Love Her and My Cherie Amour, all of which were hits for Stevie Wonder.

Victor Gorbatko (May 17, age 82)
While the U.S. had their original group of seven astronauts, the Soviet Union had their cosmonauts. Major General Gorbatko was one the original group of cosmonauts. He began his training in 1960, but didn’t make it into space until 1967. He went back into space, as a research engineer, in 1977 and 1980. Without our Soviet counterparts, there would have been no Space Race, and arguably, no moon landing to finish the 1960s.

Sheila Michaels (June 22, age 78)
A member of the Congress of Racial Equality, Sheila Michaels began using the title “Ms.” in 1961. When she was introducing the term on a New York radio station in 1969, Gloria Steinem heard the broadcast and named her magazine Ms., in 1972.

George Romero (July 16, age 77)
Boomers knew Romero as the film director who made scary movies. He is known as the Father of the Zombie Film after releasing Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Mister Boomer recalls the film as one of the scariest he ever experienced in that time.

June Foray (July 26, age 99)
Ms. Foray’s death struck a personal chord with Mister Boomer when news broke. See Boomers Lose a Giant Voice of Their Cartoon Youth.

Jerry Lewis (August 20, age 91)
Love him or hate him, Jerry Lewis became a part of the comedic fabric that formed in the boomer years. Mister Boomer, for the most part, hated his comedy. The only thing Mister Boomer liked him in was The Nutty Professor (1963).

Joe Bailon (September 25, age 94)
Born in 1923, Bailon is one of those people who worked behind the scenes, though his name was well known to boomer custom car enthusiasts. It was Bailon who was credited with creating Candy Apple Red, the quintessential hot rod color of the 1950s and ’60s. The shimmering, metallic look was achieved with a three-coat process of a base coat, color coat and clear coat. Joe Baillon went on to create a series of metallic colors. The boys in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood talked admiringly about Candy Apple Red cars they saw, and how they would use the Testor’s paint version on the model cars they were building.

Hugh Hefner (September 27, age 91)
Boomers everywhere remember Hefner as the publisher of Playboy magazine. For many boomer boys (not Mister Boomer, however), the centerfolds of their father’s Playboys were their first glimpse at the unclothed female form, thus the beginning of their sex education. For many boomer girls, the magazine and Hefner’s Playboy Clubs exploited women and propagated the notion of male dominance in the society.

Fats Domino (October 24, age 89)
A giant star who helped to break color barriers in the early days of rock ‘n roll, Fats Domino gave the world hits such as Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame in his own New Orleans-inspired style. An influencer of the nth degree to early rock and first-decade boomers, he had the first rock record to sell more than 1 million copies (The Fat Man, 1949).

Robert Blakeley (October 25, age 95)
Another man whose name was hardly a household word, but his work was known by every boomer. Blakeley was given the task of designing the first Fallout Shelter sign. He suggested the image of the three upside-down equilateral triangles and the orange-yellow and black color scheme in 1961. The signs would be painted in reflective paint so that they could be seen in subdued light with only a flick of a lighter.
Recently, New York City announced it would be removing most of the Fallout Shelter signs in public spaces, because their rusted and deteriorated condition now presents a hazard in themselves, and the info they intended to relay was misleading and incorrect from the start. (See Mister Boomer’s post: Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers)

Charles Manson (November 19, age 83)
The horrific murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969 brought Manson to the boomer public. His cult-control over his followers turned them into cold-blooded killers. Manson and many of his followers were convicted and jailed, and Manson given a life sentence.

Warren “Pete” Moore (November 19, age 79)
A singer with The Miracles, Mr. Moore was the composer of Tracks of My Tears, Ooo Baby Baby, Going to a Go-Go, I’ll be Doggone and Ain’t That Peculiar, all boomer and Motown classics, among many more. He was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (with the Miracles, 2001), Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame (2015) and retroactively into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) after a Special Committee reported the entire group of the Miracles should have been inducted when Smokey Robinson was inducted in 1987. He died on his birthday.

Jack Boyle (December 12, age 83)
A rock promoter who has been described as one of the architects of the modern concert industry, Boyle turned a small venue called The Cellar Door, in Washington, DC into a premier club for performers in the mid-60s. Among the acts he booked at the club were Miles Davis, Neil Young, the Mamas and the Papas, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, B.B. King, Rick Nelson, Carole King, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and many more. After selling the club in 1981, he went on to form Cellar Door Productions to produce blockbuster rock tours that included The Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and dozens of other boomer favorites.

Of course there were many, many more, including fellow boomer Tom Petty, Jim Neighbors, David Cassidy, Monty Hall, Dick Gregory, Glen Campbell, Adam West, Martin Landau, Gregg Allman (also the band’s drummer Butch Trucks), Roger Moore, Don Rickles, Al Jarreau, Barbara Hale, Heather Menzies-Urich (played Louissa Von Trapp in Sound of Music, 1965), Chuck Barris, astronauts Eugene Cernan (last man to walk on the moon), Paul Weitz (commander of the first Space Shuttle) and Richard Gordon (flew on Gemini 11, 1966; walked in space twice; flew around the moon in Apollo 12, 1969), to name but a few of the those who influenced our boomer landscape.

Which people who left us in 2017 will you remember, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History and have Comments (2)

Boomer TV Variety Shows: the 1970s (Part 3)

As the 1960s carried on, popularity in TV variety shows began to wane. The last of the very popular variety shows that began in the 1960s was The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). Some don’t even count this program as a variety show since the format relied heavily on the resident comedy troupe of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner (replaced by Tim Conway when Waggoner left in ’75). Guest stars were included in the skits, but seemed secondary to the comedy.

Several of the immensely popular TV variety shows of the previous two decades ended their run as the 1960s became the ’70s. Among them, Hollywood Palace folded up the tent in 1970 and the king of the variety hill, The Ed Sullivan Show, ended in 1971. Nonetheless, there were a few practitioners attempting to keep the format alive. Among those that achieved some measure of success were:

The Flip Wilson Show (1970-74)
Though Nat King Cole had become the first African-American to host a TV variety show more than a decade earlier, comedian Flip Wilson, unlike Cole, was able to garner advertising sponsors. Was it because of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 or was the society actually changing? In any case, most people Mister Boomer knew watched because Wilson was funny. His recurring character, Geraldine Jones, was a hit in Mister B’s home, as well as boomer homes across the country.

The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74, The Sonny & Cher Show ’76-77)
Husband and wife duo Sonny Bono and Cher opened each show, in its earliest incarnation, by singing their hit, The Beat Goes On, and ended each episode with I Got You Babe. In between, the mostly musical variety included guest stars and comedy skits.

Aside from the hit songs, the show was known for the Bob Mackie fashion gowns that Cher wore each week. The show was canceled when the couple announced their divorce in 1974, and their time slot was given to The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour. Cher was given her own show for a year (Cher, 1975-76). The couple reunited for The Sonny & Cher Show in the 1976-77 season.

Donny & Marie (1976-79)
Standouts from The Osmond Brothers and veterans of dozens of TV variety shows, singing siblings Donny and Marie were given a show of their own in 1976 when Fred Silverman, then president of ABC, saw them co-host on The Mike Douglas Show. They became, for the time, the youngest TV variety show hosts, at 18 and 16, respectively.

Another favorite of Mister Boomer’s mother, the show featured an ongoing musical skit of “I’m a little bit country; I’m a little bit rock ‘n roll,” where Marie would sing a country song, while Donny tried something in the pop-rock milieu.

Captain and Tennille Show (1976-77)
The Captain, Daryl Dragon, and his wife, Toni Tennille, spent years as backup singers for Elton John and Neil Sedaka. In the 1970s, they toured with the Beach Boys, where it is said Mike Love gave Dragon his nickname. This husband and wife duo had their first hit on their own in 1974 with Love will Keep Us Together. It was awarded a Grammy as Record of the Year in 1975. One year later, the couple was given a TV variety show. After the first season, they asked to be released from their contract in order to concentrate on their music and touring career.

As far as Mister Boomer is concerned, Captain and Tennille hold the record for one of the most insipid recordings ever made: Muskrat Love (1976), which they performed on the show. It was a cover first put out by America (1973), and one has to ask, why? Other than that, the show is remembered for its performance regulars, Shields and Yarnell, a husband and wife mime duo. Shields and Yarnell were spun off from the show and given their own short-lived variety program in 1977.

As the1970s progressed, TV audiences had grown tired of the variety show format. Even The Carol Burnett Show experienced a downward viewership. The heyday of TV variety shows had come to an end.

Did you have a favorite ’70s TV variety show, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comments Off on Boomer TV Variety Shows: the 1970s (Part 3)

Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1960s (Part 2)

The old saying goes that if you want to succeed at something, copy someone who was already successful at it. The immense popularity of TV variety shows in the 1950s spawned a whole new crop in the 1960s, with the formula for variety left relatively intact. One sea change was that rock ‘n roll acts, which had started to appear in ’50s variety shows, became a larger part of the mix of traditional acts such as jugglers, comedians, pop singers and opera singers.

Here are some of the popular TV variety shows of the 1960s:

The Andy Williams Show (1962-67, then 1969-71)
Starting off as a summer replacement show from 1959-62, Williams was finally given his own fall-season slot. For the most part, the program stuck to the variety format, though it did weigh heavily on musical acts. Andy Williams would open each show with his signature song, Moon River, and would often have another number. Williams was a pretty conservative guy and wasn’t interested in booking rock acts. Instead, he favored pop crooners with wholesome images like himself: Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark, for instance. His namesake program is best remembered for introducing the world to The Osmond Brothers.

When his show was brought back in 1969, the world had radically changed. The program was rebranded with a hipper image for Andy Williams (check out his neckerchiefs!) and along with it, popular rock ‘n roll acts were booked.

The Hollywood Palace (1964-70)
This show took its name from the theater where it was filmed in Los Angeles. Like so many other variety programs, Palace had a rotating series of guest hosts. However, chief among them — the host with the most appearances — was Bing Crosby. This was a testament to its attempt to appeal to an older demographic. Mister Boomer remembers the show as tremendously popular with his parents. It was on every Saturday night, in glorious black & white on the Boomer household’s TV. To Mister Boomer, it was on par with watching Lawrence Welk at his grandmother’s house. Watching a guy keep plates spinning on sticks was pretty much squaresville as far as Mister B was concerned. At least Ed Sullivan was a weird character a kid could imitate at school. Despite old-people leanings, the show featured the first U.S. TV appearance of The Rolling Stones in 1964.

The Dean Martin Show (1965-74)
Dean Martin had been a host of TV variety shows with his comedian stage partner, Jerry Lewis, since the 1940s. In the 1960s, Martin hosted various variety shows alone many times until he was given a show of his own. There were different incarnations of names and a couple of different TV networks involved, but his Rat Pack, drink-in-hand, cigarette-smoking, tuxedo-wearing persona was always front and center.

In 1968, he introduced a female group of singers and dancers called The Golddiggers. They quickly became TV audience favorites and Martin made them the official dancers for the show. The group opened each episode, dressed in sparkly Folies-style leotards, introducing Dean Martin. The troupe was made up entirely of young women. They could sing and dance, but were also used as actors in sketches, often interacting with celebrity guests. While Mister Boomer’s mother enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing, his father especially liked The Golddiggers. That meant the show was always going to be viewed on the Boomer family TV.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69)
While one variety show leaned toward music, others leaned toward comedy. Seeming to be, on the surface, a folk-singing comedy duo, the Smothers Brothers — Tom and Dick — used their show as a platform for topical, biting satire. They fearlessly bashed the Vietnam war, politics, sexuality and religion — all the taboo subjects that TV had for the most part avoided during the tumultuous decade up to that point.

Though the program was big on satirical comedy, and introduced the world to comedian Pat Paulsen, top musical acts of the decade were also featured. Included in the list of luminaries were The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, the Hollies, the Temptations, Glen Campbell and many more. Where Hollywood Palace and The Andy Williams Show catered to boomers’ parents, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became a TV variety show voice of a new generation.

It is commonly thought that the brothers’ show was cancelled because of their political leanings, but that is not entirely the case. In fact, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had been renewed for the 1970 season. The brothers fought constant battles with CBS over censoring acts, sketches or parts of sketches, but it wasn’t until Tommy Smothers began lobbying against censorship to the FCC that CBS executives fired them. The brothers filed a breach of contract lawsuit and won compensation for the year of programs that never were.

The changing cultural scene that exploded in the late 1960s made its presence known on TV in several ways, including comedy and music. Perhaps chief among them was the rising influence and importance of rock ‘n roll in the culture. When acts appeared on TV variety shows, slowly but surely, the previous generation was put on notice that the Boomer Generation was shaking their windows and rattling their walls.

What variety shows did your family watch on TV in the 1960s, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comments Off on Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1960s (Part 2)

Boomer-Era Variety Shows: the 1950s (Part 1)

World War II ended and by 1947, television caught on in a big way as individual stations appeared in the largest cities. Within four years, a couple of dozen stations had grown to hundreds. The adaptation of TV by the public is still on record as the quickest rise of any technology — faster than indoor plumbing, home electricity, radio, the telephone and even the smartphone. There were just over 100,000 TV sets in the country by 1947, but by 1950, 8 million sets had been purchased — a rise from less than one percent to 88 percent of homes owning a TV.

Of course, the correlation to the Baby Boom was no accident as more couples were married, started families, bought homes and moved to the suburbs. As TV stations began to broadcast 20 hours per day, the race was on to capture the most viewers, especially in the post-dinner hours, the prime time when parents and their children might gather around the household TV.

Networks and local stations turned to Vaudeville traditions for programming inspiration. Vaudeville was a form of live variety entertainment that began in the 1880s. Vaudeville shows mixed singing, dancing, comedy, magic, acrobatics and sketch performances live on stage. By the 1930s, it saw a precipitous decline in attendance due to the Depression, the spread of movies and widespread embrace of radio in the home. As the public taste for entertainment shifted, many Vaudeville performers made the transition first to radio programs, then on to TV.

The first hour-long musical variety show broadcast regularly on network TV was Hour Glass, airing from 1947 to 1948. It pioneered the live commercial that became the standard for variety shows that followed. The show featured performers — many of whom had been Vaudeville performers — that included Dennis Day, Bert Lahr and Peggy Lee, among others. It also marked the first time a radio performer — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — appeared on TV.

It seemed like various forces were all in alignment for variety shows on TV: expanding audience, at-the-ready supply of performers and willing sponsors. Yet there was another important factor to the explosion of TV variety shows in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, and that was: the music. The American Federation of Musicians controlled the market for live musicians, and TV was a live performance venue in the early days. At the dawn of television broadcasting, the question of what and how to pay performers was brought to the forefront, as it had when silent movies transitioned into “talkies.” Various music unions had contracts in place for film appearances of musicians, but TV was a whole new — and potentially lucrative — landscape. Consequently, as music publishers sought license fees for their music and musicians, the AFM banned live music on TV until 1948. The TV industry acquiesced to the demands of the music unions as ASCAP, the company known for managing music licensing fees, charged three times the fee for a TV appearance than was charged for a film appearance.

There were other ways the TV industry struggled with how to present music. The burgeoning industry was struggling with what role it should play in the culture at large, a debate that was very much in the public realm and even on the minds of Congressional legislators. As a result, operas and classical concerts were broadcast in the 1940s and early ’50s. Variety shows took their cue from these early broadcasts, and regularly included operatic and classical music stars in their programming, alongside pop music and jazz. To further control the “live” appearance of singers, lip-synching was heavily employed to avoid any variations in the performance of a singer from the expectations of the audience. At the same time, if a show could avoid paying for live musicians, all the better for their bottom line.

Here are a few of the influential variety shows that appeared along with the Baby Boom:

Toast of the Town / The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)
The longest-running variety show in the history of television, Toast of the Town was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in its ninth season. Initially, Ed Sullivan was not the show’s host as guest hosts acted as emcee, and introduced the acts. The first show was hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

There is probably not a boomer who was over the age of 7 by the early ’60s who doesn’t remember The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The man had an uncanny knack for picking acts that were on the verge of breaking out. Famous (or infamous) icons of the Boomer Era who appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show included Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Righteous Brothers, Peter and Gordon, The Byrds, The Mama and the Papas, The Doors, James Brown, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, The Jackson 5 and many, many more.

Unlike a lot of the variety shows on TV, Sullivan wanted his musical acts to perform live, not just lip-synch. That led to some interesting disagreements with lyrics deemed questionable for TV when the Rolling Stones and The Doors appeared, as most boomers recall. Sullivan also featured classical music, opera, jazz, dance, jugglers, comedians and a crazy little puppet mouse, Topo Gigio, that was a favorite of Mister Boomer’s grandmother … And that is the story of The Ed Sullivan Show in a nutshell, that the show was popular with every member of the family because Sullivan booked acts that could please everyone.

Texaco Star Theater (1948-56)
This comedy-variety show started out as a radio show in 1938. Like Ed Sullivan, the show had a series of guest hosts, but when Milton Berle hosted, the show’s ratings skyrocketed and he was made the permanent emcee. Texaco Star Theater is best remembered as the show that earned Berle his “Mr. Television” nickname.

The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55)
A show with “comedy” in its name should have the best comedians of the day, and this show did. Hosts included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, among others. As a musical-variety show, hosts also included Donald O’Conner, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, and a bevy of stars our parents remember better than boomers do. Like Texaco Star Theater, a single sponsor — Colgate — commanded the commercials throughout the program. Commercials were performed live like other shows, often by the stars themselves.

Your Show of Shows (1950-54)
More than just another variety show, some say this one was the most influential of them all. Featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, the show had a writing pool of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. It was the first show to feature an ongoing comedy sketch, “The Hickenloopers.” Some say every comedy show that followed owed a debt to Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner stated that The Dick Van Dyke Show was inspired by the show.

The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57)
Featuring the first African-American TV series host, the show aired without a sponsor. Advertisers feared they would upset their customers in the South, so NBC aired it anyway, footing the bill. Nat King Cole was an immensely popular singer, but 1950s white America wasn’t at all sure they wanted to see a black man host a TV show. The star ended the show himself in its second season, when no sponsor could be found.

Mister Boomer remembers his family tuning in as Mr. Cole opened each show at his piano, singing a song.

Of course, there were many other variety shows aired in the first complete decade of the Baby Boom. Families gathered around the TV each week to laugh, be entertained and maybe get a little highbrow culture as the flickering black and white images of our boomer youth appeared on a tiny screen.

Were you old enough to watch variety shows in the 1950s, boomers? Which were your family’s favorites?

Next up: Variety Shows in the 1960s

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,TV and have Comment (1)